Professor Denis Rancourt of the University of Ottawa has taken a radical step in his teaching practices: he tells all the students in his classes that they automatically get an A+. For this, among other infractions of convention, he has been suspended with pay from his teaching position pending institutional review.
Prof. Rancourt’s suspension is the most serious step in a long series of grievances and conflicts with the university dating back to 2005, when, after researching new teaching methods, he first experimented with eliminating letter grades. He also altered course curriculum with student input – although not the approval of the university – an approach he calls “academic squatting.”
A well-published and politically outspoken scientist who revels in hashing out theories on napkins at conferences, Prof. Rancourt’s unconventional teaching style has generated both an ardent following among a core group of students, and the rancour of many of his fellow faculty members, one-third of whom signed a petition of complaint against him in the fall of 2007. In the letter, which he provided, the complaints stem largely from a series of critical e-mails he distributed about their “paternalistic” teaching methods – a criticism he still expresses, with little restraint, today.
Well, I have to say that what he proposes actually sounds cool and interesting, and that I’d have to see a lot more information before I could say whether the suspension was warranted or not. Grades are a pain and sometimes an obstacle to real learning, and sometimes they are a crutch — a whip we use to motivate when we can’t get the students excited about a subject. I think that one of the things tenured professors ought to be able to do is experiment and innovate in their teaching.
However, there are two potential problems. One is that sometimes innovation doesn’t work — if you’re going to experiment, sometimes experiments fail. The article doesn’t say whether there was some objective assessment of the outcomes of his classes. Do his students actually come out the other side of the term with him with more knowledge and understanding? If they do, bugger the objections, let him keep at it. If they don’t, and the university is actually complaining that he is ignoring the assessment of his experiments to keep doing stuff that doesn’t work, then goodbye Professor Rancourt.
The other problem is that a university education is not the product of a single instructor, and we must respect the whole of the curriculum and work together with our colleagues. I rely on other faculty to teach our students cell biology and molecular biology, for instance; if students showed up in my upper level elective courses with the expectation that they’d learn some developmental biology, and I discovered that they knew nothing about those foundational subjects because their instructors had decided that they’d teach philosophy and political science instead (something I know they wouldn’t do), I would be screwed, and more than a little upset. I’d like to know how far he deviated from the course curricula…a little flexibility is good, but if he was ignoring the needs of the whole discipline’s program, then that’s also reason to say bye-bye to Rancourt.